Archives for October 2017

Insect Armageddon

Last evening at home I had a phone call from LBC radio station in London. Sophie asked if I would talk with Clive Bull about the ‘Insect Armageddon’ trending the news yesterday. Why me? – I guessed at this hour I could be found on a phone. Fortunately I had looked at the report by scientists on the 76% reduction in flying insect biomass in 27 years up to 2016 on 63 German nature reserves, so I did know the story – see in the journal Plos One. I also felt strongly connected to this news as I am old enough to remember car trips to the New Forest in the late 1950s when after 20 miles you’d have to scrape the windscreen clear of dead insects and from time to time clear the radiator grill. And that was also true in the Scottish Highlands in the 1960s. Just imagine what the reduction of flying insects really has been in the UK if you used 1950 or 1960 as the baseline not 1989. It’s truly disastrous.

Ornithologists are used to the severity of the declines – 97% of turtle doves gone since 1970. When I heard some singing in Andalusia this past April it reminded me of my childhood in rural Hampshire – what a loss to our enjoyment of the countryside to lose that gentle purring in the hawthorn hedges. Then don’t get me started but look at the appalling loss of grey partridges, corn buntings, yellowhammers, poppies, corn cockles and marigolds to the chemicalisation and intensification of agriculture since the 1960s. To understand these dramatic changes you must read Ian Newtown’s new book ‘Farming and Birds’ in the New Naturalist series. I’m two-thirds of the way through – it’s a brilliant read and a weighty tome (it’s also too heavy to read in bed!) which explores the whole history of farming and birds – the relationships good and bad – but details fully the dramatic changes due to the intensification of farming, the onslaught of a bewildering array of chemicals – insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, artificial fertilisers and the loss of wild plants, insects and soil ecosystems. Although individual chemicals are tested for impacts – the real problem is the cocktail of chemicals from intensive agriculture added to emissions from industry and the way we live, including acid rain.

It shocks me that scientific reports continually document the impacts on wildlife and the threat to future global ecosystems yet society seems unable to rein back the worst aspects of intensive agriculture. When I started working with wildlife in the early 1960s the immediate worry was the rapid declines of raptors such as peregrines and golden eagles. Scientists soon proved this was due to new chemicals used in sheep dips and agriculture. The conservation bodies, government and NGOs, demanded changes and within a reasonable time the offending chemicals were taken out of use, and the problems subsided. Why are demands for change not met nowadays – are the bodies less able or organised, are the politicians more negligent or are the chemical companies and the farming industry much stronger?

My very strong view is that we need immediate change not more research – governments and big business love research it means they don’t have to do anything NOW. And nature if given a chance can bounce back, even on farmland, as I saw when I again revisited Knepp Estate in Sussex. There 3500 acres of farmland were turned over to rewilding some 16 years ago and the return of nature has been fantastic – even turtle doves and nightingales, purple emperor butterflies and a childhood delight grasshoppers exploding as we walked through the long vegetation. My view is that for the sake of future generations and the planet we need to do that on a very big scale – not a field on a farm or a farm here and there, but big places – the South Downs, Salisbury Plain and other big ecosystems where nature takes precedence. In my mind, 40% seems about what is needed but a big hot potato to weigh up Society’s and the Earth’s long term needs against individual farming rights. But it has to be done.

Around the Atlas

In the last update we speculated as to how long Jules would remain in Morocco, or even if he would stay there for the winter, as a small number of European osprey do each year. However we now know that after spending just over a week on the coast between Casablanca and Safi he resumed his journey south at around 12:30 local time on Tuesday afternoon.

After arriving on the Moroccan coast on 9th October Jules initially favoured an area near Ouled Salam, spending his days along the shoreline, and then roosting 8 km inland. Then on 13th October he moved 20 km south to Oualidia where his daily routine was much the same; favouring an area of saltpans to the north-east of the town during the day before roosting a few kilometres inland.

Jules spent a week on the Moroccan coast between Casablanca and Safi

He finally resumed his migration at lunchtime on 17th October, flying 104 km south-west before turning more to the south at 16:21 and continuing onward for another two hours. He settled to roost 40 km north-west of Marrakesh at around 18:15 local time having flown 128 km during the course of the afternoon.

At 08:15 next morning Jules was perched beside a river 5.5 km south of his overnight roost and an hour later he had moved 2 km south-west, and was probably eating a fish. He resumed his migration at around 10:00 passing to the west of Marrakesh and onward towards the Atlas. These imposing mountains are a barrier to migrating birds and as Jules approached he changed his heading to west-south-west to avoid the high peaks. Over the course of the next five hours he flew south-west and then south around the western end of the mountains, flying at a maximum altitude of 2032 m. The video below shows his flight around the mountains.

By 17:00 Jules had flown 184 km and was south of the mountains but he showed no signs of letting up. He continued on a south-east and then south-west course for another five hours, covering another 139 km, before finally setting to roost two hours after sunset at 20:51. He had now reached the northern edge of the Sahara and he roosted at the top of a remote cliff face after a day’s flight of 323 km.

Jules roosted on the top of a cliff face on Wednesday night

Yesterday morning Jules left his roost site more than two hours before dawn and by 07:24 local time he had already flown 65 km. We haven’t received any data since because, as he heads across the Sahara, Jules will be out of the range of mobile phone masts. It will be fascinating to see where he is when the next batch of data comes through. You can check out his flight so far on our interactive map.

Jules’ flight through Morrocco 9-19 October

Into Africa

The previous data had shown that Jules crossed the Bay of Biscay from Brittany to northern Spain on 3rd October. Next morning he resumed his migration shortly before midday and set off south through the mountains of Asturias passing peaks of over 2000 m. By 15:59 he was south of the highest mountains, and he continued flying until almost 20:00 when he settled to roost among scattered trees near Une de Quintana after a day’s flight of 181 km.

Jules flew through the mountains of Asturias in northern Spain on 4th October

At 09:20 he was perched beside a large reservoir 9 km to the south and an hour later had moved 2.5 km south and was probably eating a fish. By 11:18 he was migrating again and he made excellent progress south, passing into Extremadura soon after 16:00 at an altitude of more than 2000 m. By 21:00 he had flown 325 km from his overnight roost and was perched at the northern end of the appropriately named Embalse de la Pena del Aguila. However with a full moon and favourable winds Jules took the opportunity to press on, flying a further 137 km by moonlight before finally settling to roost for the night on a hillside in north-west Andalusia after a day’s flight of 462 km.

At 08:10 next morning he had flown another 9 km south but he didn’t resume migration proper until just before 11:00. He maintained a south-westerly heading and three hours later he was perched beside the Rio Tinto at Heulva, close to one of sites where Scottish ospreys were released as part of the successful osprey translocation project in southern Spain. He continued south-east an hour later, passing over the world famous Coto Donana, before roosting for the night on the banks of the Guadalquivir River after a day’s flight of 168 km.

Jules spent the night of 6th October beside the River Guadalquivir

Next morning Jules followed the river to the coast before turning south and heading towards Cadiz. The fish rich waters of the harbour and surrounding area support an increasing number of wintering ospreys and Jules is likely to have encountered some of them while fishing just to the north of Puerto Real during the afternoon. He spent the night in a forested area 5 km east of Puerto Real having flown 75 km during the course of the day.

When migrating through Spain most migrating raptors head for the short crossing to Morocco across the Strait of Gibraltar, but ospreys are well capable of much longer ocean crossings and after two relatively easy days Jules set off from Cadiz before 06:00 and headed out across the Atlantic. By 07:30 he had already flown 113 km and was flying south-west across the sea at an altitude of 110 m. This initial bearing would have caused him to miss the Morocco coast, but over the course of the next eight hours he flew in a wide arc across the Atlantic at relatively low altitude (all positions less than 90 m) before making landfall at Casablanca at 14:17 local time having flown 398 km across the sea. After crossing Casablanca Jules turned to the south-west and flew another 113 km before eventually settling to roost for the night at 19:09 among olive trees having flown 524 km from Cadiz at an average speed of around 37 km/hour. A superb day of migration.

Jules flew 398 km across the Atlantic between Cadiz and Casablanca

Rather than continuing south on 9th October, Jules headed almost due east. At 13:02 he had reached the coast at Oualidia and then, during the course of the afternoon, completed a loop of some 57 km just to the south. He eventually settled to roost in an area of scattered trees near the village of Abde Laaziz Ben Yeffou having flown 127 km during the course of the day. However his afternoon wanderings means that, in fact, he was just 75 km south-west of his position the previous evening.

Yesterday morning Jules left his roost site at 10:00 and this time headed due north. At 11:10 he had flown 33 km and was at the coast near Ouled Salem. An hour later he was perched on the beach 6 km north-east and he remained there for the rest of the afternoon. With an hour between each GPS fix, there is every chance that Jules caught a fish in the sea at some point during the afternoon and then returned to the same spot on the beach to eat it. Eventually he flew 8 km inland to roost and he was still there at 08:07 this morning.

Jules has spent the last two days on the Morocco coast to the south of Casablanca

It will be very interesting to see how long Jules remains on the Morocco coast. His behaviour over the past two days is typical of an osprey during a stop-over, but there is a slim chance that he could winter here. Most European ospreys either winter in sub-Saharan Africa or in southern Europe but a small number winter in Morocco. The chances are, however, that he’ll continue south across the Sahara in the next few days. Don’t forget that you can check out his latest flight on our interactive map.

Jules’ flight through Spain and Morocco, 4-10 October

Settled in Casamance

As we expected last week, Blue DF is now settled in Casamance in southern Senegal and is spending most of his time in a o.5 km² section of creeks 5 km south-west of Baila. The only notable exceptions were on  Saturday when he flew 16 km north and then on Sunday when he followed the river 25 km north-west. There must be other ospreys arriving all the time, and it is very likely that Blue DF was flying around with other birds each day.

Blue DF’s favoured spot is 5 km south-west of the town of Baila

Blue DF made longer flights on Sat 30th Sept and Sun 1st Oct

Don’t forget that you can check out Blue DF’s latest movements on our interactive map.

Biscay crossing

Having spent 17 days stopping-over a few kilometres to the north-west of the Gulf of Morbihan in Brittany, Jules (Blue JV3) resumed his migration yesterday and flew direct across the Bay of Biscay to Asturias in northern Spain.

Jules spent most of his 17 day stop-over in Brittany to the north-west of Gulf of Morbihan, favouring two locations near Auray (red circles indicate areas with 50% of GPS fixes)

During his stop-over in Brittany Jules spent long periods perched in marshes beside the River Auray

Over the past week Jules had continued to frequent his favoured spots along the River Auray, but when yesterday dawned bright and sunny he took the opportunity to resume his migration. A gap in the satellite data means that we do not know the exact time of his departure from Gulf of Morbihan but it must have been fairly early because at 13:23 local time he had flown 149 km and was flying south-west across the Bay of Biscay at an altitude of 250 m. At 14:35 he was crossing the Saint-Nazarie Canyon where the sea bed drops from a depth of around 100 m to over 4000 m. Interestingly at this point he had climbed to an altitude of 1051 m, suggesting that he was able to exploit some kind of lift; perhaps weak sea thermals which sometimes develop over the Bay of Biscay in autumn. You can read more about this in chapters 2 and 3 of my PhD thesis here. Unfortunately the GPS fixes are not of sufficient temporal resolution to determine whether Jules was soaring over the sea, but the change in altitude certainly suggests it.

Jules climbed to an altitude of 1051 m during his Bay of Biscay crossing, suggesting he may have been able to exploit some form of lift over the sea

Jules was flying with a light east-north-east tailwind and during the course of the afternoon this turned almost due east. Such winds have the potential to cause migrating ospreys to miss the north coast of Spain, but Jules compensated by changing his heading at 15:28 and flying almost due south for 67 km. At 17:12 he turned back to the south-west and continued on a constant bearing to the Spanish coast, flying at altitudes of between 194 m and 76 m. He finally reached land at Aviles in Asturias in northern Spain an hour after sunset at 22:07 local time having flown 515 km from Gulf of Morbihan, 500 km of which was over the Bay of Biscay. Having arrived in the dark he settled to roost in trees on the outskirts of Aviles.

Jules flew 500 km across the Bay of Biscay from Brittany to Asturias

This morning Jules was still at his overnight roost at 08:13 local time but an hour later was perched near Embalse de la Grande. He remained there until at least 11:30, suggesting he may well have caught a fish. By 13:04, the final GPS fix in this batch, he had resumed his migration and was 31 km south of Aviles heading towards the Cantabrian mountains.

You can check out Jules’ latest locations on our interactive map.